LAKE SEBU, South Cotabato (MindaNews / 08 Dec) –The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has found two military commanders liable for human rights abuses in connection with the killing of seven tribal members in a remote village on December 3 last year.
Erlan Deluvio, CHR Region 12 director, identified the military officials as Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, commander of the 33rd Infantry Battalion (IB) based in Sultan Kudarat province, and Lt. Col. Benjamin Leander, then commander of the 27th IB based in South Cotabato.
Datu Victor Danyan Sr., chair of the T’boli Manobo S’daf Claimants Organization based in far-flung Sitio Datal Bonlangon, Barangay Ned here, and six other community members were killed on December 3, 2017 in what human rights and militant groups described as a massacre.
The two officials are “liable for human rights violations for their utter failure to exert earnest efforts in distinguishing combatants from non-combatants under the principles of distinction of International Humanitarian Law,” Deluvio said in an October 5 resolution for which Cabunoc and Leander, who was replaced as 27th IB commander last January, sought a motion for reconsideration.
Deluvio junked their appeal last Monday, December 3, coincidentally the first anniversary of the killing.
In their defense, the military officials stressed there was a legitimate encounter between soldiers and New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in the area that resulted in the deaths of the tribal chieftain and six others.
Two soldiers were also killed during the encounter.
Cabunoc appeared unfazed by the findings of the CHR, saying it will be the court that will decide on the merits of the case.
“I will never falter in performing my constitutional mandate of protecting the people against armed aggression by the communist terrorist NPA and their auxiliary forces like the group of Victor Danyan,” he said in a text message.
“If Datu Victor was fighting for his rights, I am also obliged to defend the plantation workers of Dawang Coffee Plantation against the planned attack by the NPA terrorists who supported Victor’s armed followers in seizing lands from Consunji,” the official added.
In the CHR’s nine-page resolution, Cabunoc and Leander claimed the military operation was triggered by intelligence reports that the NPA’s Platoon Arabo and Platoon My Phone had merged at Sitio Datal Bonlangon allegedly to launch an attack against coffee producer Silvicultural Industrial Inc., which is owned by the Consunji Company.
The slain tribal leader’s group did not give its consent for the renewal of the coffee company’s Integrated Forest Management Agreement 022, which expired on December 31, 2016.
Company officials could not be reached for comment.
Witnesses presented by the military claimed that Danyan and the NPA rebels were allegedly hatching a plan to attack the coffee plantation on December 10 last year in line with the tribe’s bid to reclaim their lands.
Inconsistent with ‘encounter’ claim
In its investigation, the CHR-12 found Danyan’s community is not a guerilla base and the NPA camps pointed by the military are detachments of the militiamen and company guards.
The CHR’s autopsy results on the seven cadavers showed that five suffered from gunshot wounds, one caused by a “blunt force and traumatic injuries to the head and body,” and the other by a stab wound.
“It appears to the commission that the cause of death of the two victims seems to show inconsistency with the claimed encounter by the respondents,” Deluvio said.
Deluvio urged Congress to order the preventive suspension of the two military officials pending further investigation of their human rights cases.
He also called on President Rodrigo Duterte to consider a total ban on large business ventures that encroach on ancestral lands in the region, to avoid a repeat of the tribal members’ killings.
Meanwhile, Dande Dinyan, the new Tamasco chairperson, urged the military, the communist rebels and private company guards to stay away from their community as they continue to search for justice for the victims a year after their deaths.
In a statement in Filipino, Dinyan lamented the lack of “deeper official investigation” on the case, apparently unaware that the CHR-12 had already issued a resolution on the case that the respondents sought to reconsider.
Dinyan said they want state and non-state armed actors to stay away from their community to pave the way for a thorough probe not just of the killings but also other excesses that have occurred in their community over the years.
“Our human rights have been trampled for a long time…We are calling on the government to conduct a serious investigation of all the things that happened in our community, including the deaths of Datu Victor and the (six) others,” said Dinyan, who also strongly belied allegations that the seven who were slain were communist rebels.
Lumads asserting their rights
The Task Force Tamasco, a coalition of human rights organizations and indigenous peoples rights’ advocates, including the Oblates of Notre Dame-run Hesed Foundation, Inc., blamed officials and members of the 27th and 33rd Infantry Battalions for the death of the seven tribal members.
“They have long struggled and protested against land grabbing and the corporate abuse on their land. They were not rebels. They were Lumads (indigenous peoples) asserting their rights under the law,” the task force said in a statement.
Sister Susan Bolanio, Hesed Foundation executive director, said the tribe continues to mourn the death and the lack of justice for the victims.
“It’s painful to remember. It makes me cry again,” the nun said in a Facebook post.
Bolanio, who had earlier served as Director of the Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel, has been among those accused of being a member or supporter of the communist movement, an allegation she has repeatedly denied. She described the slain tribal leader as a well-meaning person who fought to reclaim the land of their ancestors.
For over a decade, the Hesed Foundation has been assisting the tribe with livelihood and development projects. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)